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Navy nominee Rooney ruffles senators with view on military justice system

| Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, 8:21 p.m.

WASHINGTON — President Obama's nominee for a top civilian job in the Navy is in the cross hairs of female senators determined to overhaul the military justice system to stanch the increasing number of sexual assaults.

Jo Ann Rooney, tapped to be undersecretary of the Navy, responded to a Senate panel last month and offered her opinion on a proposal to remove commanders from the process of deciding whether serious crimes, including sexual misconduct cases, go to trial. That judgment would rest instead with seasoned trial lawyers who have prosecutorial experience and hold the rank of colonel or above.

“A judge advocate outside the chain of command will be looking at a case through a different lens than a military commander,” Rooney said. “I believe the impact would be decisions based on evidence rather than the interest in preserving good order and discipline.”

Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., chief proponent of that far-reaching change, was furious and is blocking Rooney's nomination.

“The United States legal system is based on evidence, justice and due process. Why isn't this good enough for our service members who risk everything to protect those freedoms?” Gillibrand said. “Jo Ann Rooney's testimony should send chills down the spine of any member of the armed services seeking justice.”

Rooney sought to clarify her response, writing to the committee on Oct. 16. The nominee said she did not mean to suggest that commanders do not consider evidence. She reiterated her reservations about the proposed change, saying judge advocates would lack the “necessary breadth of perspective” to decide on whether to proceed with a case, especially if they were geographically removed from the accused's command.

It was clear on Wednesday that that answer failed to placate Gillibrand, who told a Capitol Hill news conference that the first answer was unacceptable and the second was Rooney “doubling down” on her initial response.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said she was shocked by what Rooney wrote.

“It sickened me,” she said.

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